Vail Daily column: Who are the veterans?
Of today’s 322 million Americans, about 22 million of them are veterans. These are the men and women who, years ago, in the prime of their young American lives, put on a uniform and went to serve on active duty in the armed forces of the United States.
• 1,710,000 are the remaining veterans from the 16 million who served in World War II.
• 2,275,000 are from the 5.7 million who served during the Korean conflict.
• 7,391,000 are from the 9 million who served during the Vietnam era.
• 2,200,000 from the 2.3 million who served Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
• 3,100,000 served or are serving in the war on terror in Iraq/Afghanistan.
• 5,381,000 served in peacetime.
These were all young people, young people who got a haircut, put on a uniform, and then gave two or more of their formative years to the military — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or the Coast Guard.
First, they went to basic training, then advanced individual training, and then occupational training. They learned to drill and march, they learned to shoot and clean a rifle, they learned to crawl through mud under barbed wire, but they also learned some excellent occupational skills.
Today’s military has more than 800 listed occupations. So, besides basic combat skills, they learned at least one or two skills which they could use when they left the military. Some learned computer skills, some learned to cook. Some became nurses or policemen, some became mechanics, drivers, pilots, swimmers, microwave or radio specialists. Some became astronauts.
I’m a veteran. I joined the military when I was 19 years old. I remember getting on a Greyhound bus with 50 other dumb young men and driving through the night to Fort Ord, eating candy bars and smoking cigarettes (yes, dumb). The next morning, I was awakened by a man dressed with a Smokey-the-Bear hat, who ordered me and my companions to get off the bus and “line up,” whatever that means. Then it began. They began changing me.
Within three days, my blue jeans, my candy bars, and all of my hair were gone. They gave me three ugly green uniforms, two sheets and a blanket, a bunk and a mop. It was a bit confusing with all those Smokey Bear people yelling at me, making me do push-ups, getting me up every morning at 5:30 a.m., and “double-timing” to training classes all day and into the night. But I had 50 new friends, and we bonded and supported each other.
Within a year, I was a corporal, with a dress uniform, a daytime khaki uniform, and three fatigue uniforms, all with the two corporal stripes on them. I’d been from Fort Ord in California, to Fort Lewis in Washington, to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. I’d learned a new language: “line-up, double-time, mess hall, dress-right, sergeant-major, grunt, roger, zulu time,” and all the acronyms: NCO, CIB, FDC, M1, XO. I’d been on an airplane for the first time, proudly wearing my dress uniform and only having to pay half price. I’d learned a lot and experienced a lot.
And the journey was just beginning.
I served six years in the U. S. Army, to include one year as an advisor to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. I wasn’t a kid eating candy bars on the back of a bus any more. There were a lot of life skills being picked up and digested.
Now I’m 70 years old. I’m a veteran. And I’m a member of the Minturn Mount of the Holy Cross VFW Post 10721. Its members include men and women who served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These are the people who stood up, signed up, got a haircut, put on a uniform, and took the same oath I did, “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”.
That oath is the single element that ties all veterans together. And what is the “Constitution of the United States”? Basically it is the Preamble, with 7 Articles and 27 Amendments. It defines our country: our branches of government, our laws and obligations, our rights and freedoms. I sometimes wonder, if, all those many years ago in 1966 when I took that oath, I wonder if I really understood the Constitution, and the relationship of that oath to our freedoms.
But today, living in this beautiful valley, and knowing that girls can go to school, men can own rifles and go hunting, women can drive cars, and I can eat candy bars, or not — today, yes, I know the relationship of that oath to these freedoms, as do my fellow veterans, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Vail resident Pete Thompson is the commander of VFW Post 10723 Minturn-Holy Cross.